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Ode to Mary: Lover and Giver of Life

Four years ago we lost Mary Gehr, lover and giver of life. I was blessed to have her as a mother-in-law. My husband, Joe, said in her eulogy, “We were taught the meaning of selflessness, caring, patience and compassion for humankind. We were taught to see people for who they were, not for who the world tells us they are.

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My mother’s arms were always open and welcoming to anyone, it didn’t matter who you were, where you came from or what you wanted, for my mom, it was about what she could do to help…Whenever you saw Mary, you would see a big smile on her face. It never mattered what kind of mood she was in; she was always happy to see you. If you didn’t want a hug, you were going to get one anyway.

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Sometimes I think she should have gone into politics. I think if she was the Secretary of State, a lot of countries would end their conflicts and hug each other instead. If you only met Mary for a few minutes, she would make an impression on you that would last a lifetime. Couldn’t our country use a few more Mary Gehrs right now?”

Mary Gehr, my mother-in-law, was a lover of life and laughing, parties and planning them.  She loved going to Las Vegas, playing video poker, Bridge, and Words with Friends. She loved Budweiser, murder mysteries, giving hugs, eating great food, cooking for others, Thanksgiving Day, and being with family.

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Mary Gehr was a strong woman, an amazing mother, the rock of her family, a giver of life, the epitome of hospitality,  a peacekeeper, devoted wife, and bad-ass grandma.  She was spirited, full of joy, selfless, generous beyond measure, supportive, spontaneous, positive and funny. She welcomed everyone as family, would talk to anyone, was so darn lucky in video poker and keno and never worried about what others thought of her. She had dimples and a smile that lit up every room she entered.

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Mary made friends wherever she went. Here, she’s getting to know some bikers in a restroom line at Branched Oak restaurant.

We never know how long we have, life can change or end in a minute, but Mary Gehr was just as shocked as her friends and family that life took a turn for her on July 24, 2015, the day before her 78th birthday and the day of our daughter, Jessica’s 21st birthday. The last words she said before having surgery to repair a perforated colon were, “I don’t want to die on Jessica’s birthday. I don’t want to die on my birthday.” She didn’t.  The few weeks she was kept alive on life support, she couldn’t talk, but she could nod her head and she could smile. When my husband asked Mary if she wanted to keep fighting, she nodded yes. She gave the fight of her life to stay with us. 

Mary had just started to live a new life of independence, finding her voice and making her own choices. It’s not that she didn’t have that with her husband, Marv, but she came into her own in a different sort of way after Marv passed. She was just as happy, even though she was sad. She was just as strong, even though she was lonely. She loved being around people, even though she could be alone. She got to know herself better and we got to know her in just a Mary-way, without Marv. She was a feisty lady and so proud of the name “bad-ass grandma” she earned from Jessica. 217477_10201067686839796_754692611_n

Jessica’s birthday party was Grandma’s idea. She loves a party–loves to host, loves to go, loves to have fun. But instead, she is lying in a hospital bed getting life support from a ventilator. After an eight-week stay alternating between the hospital and rehabilitation center, Mary’s colon perforated, poisoning her from the inside. Without emergency surgery, she would have died within hours. But surgery to remove most of her colon and repair damages left her weakened even more than before, fighting infections, kidney impairment, and many other critical issues.  Because Grandma Gehr loves to have fun, we went forward with the birthday party…and we had a blast. Our friends and family are so supportive, praying for Mary’s recovery but also celebrating with Jessica. *Written the weekend after Mary’s surgery and Jessica’s party.

Mary lived long enough to smile again, to hold a hand, to hear our good-byes. Mary died on August 10, 2015.IMG_8620

My husband, Joe, summed up his mom’s zest for life in her eulogy: “One of our good friends offered sympathy at Marv’s funeral, gave Mary a hug and said, “You will be with Marv again.” Mary’s response: “I hope not too soon!” Rather than feeling sorry for herself, she took what life gave her and began to live every day like it was her last. She had so much fun and joy these last couple of years. Of course, she missed my dad, we all have. I think she cried a tear every day for him and every conversation we had, we talked about him in some way.”

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Yes, indeed, the world could use a lot more Marys, but we were pretty darn happy to have had our Mary. She was a one-of-a-kind-lover-of-life and it is with great joy we remember her today and always.

 

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Humor is the Hand of Hospitality: A Benedictine Pilgrimage, Part 6

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Hospitality can look different from one situation to another. It can be opening one’s home to another or serving a meal, but it can also be cracking a joke to break the ice or ease some tension. Humor is the hand of hospitality. Today I get my chance to practice.

Wednesday, June 19—This day begins with a trip to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, located in the Franconia region of Bavaria, Germany. It is a well-known medieval old town, having survived the Thirty Years War and World War II (limited damage that was repaired). Rothenburg, a walled village with many towers, is part of the popular Romantic Road through southern Germany.

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In Rothenburg, there were many sites to see—churches, garden walks, spectacular views, quaint shops, many Christmas stores, a part Gothic/part Renaissance Town Hall, and beautiful fountains.

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Continue reading “Humor is the Hand of Hospitality: A Benedictine Pilgrimage, Part 6”

A Busload of Hospitality: A Benedictine Pilgrimage, Part 4

“Pilgrimage calls us to yield our own agendas and follow where we are being led.” —Christine Valters Painter, The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within

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Many times in the months leading up to the pilgrimage, I perused the informational brochure outlining where we would visit each day and where we would stay, anticipating the trip ahead. The pace and routine of the previous pilgrimage gave me a good idea of what to expect—but what is actually experienced lies in the gaps of the agenda, in the conversations and relationships with others, and in the details of the day that cannot be planned or controlled. This is where the grace of God enters—sometimes it is in the form of discomfort and challenges and other times in opportunities that new insights and “aha moments” of new understanding bring.

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I am at a threshold, a doorway, entering into a time and space of letting go as I pray in my mantra—“Trust God, peace like a river flows.” I know that surrender can eventually bring peace, wonder, surprise, openness, vulnerability, and/or joy, but I also know that not surrendering can bring tension, worry, expectation, guilt, anger, resentment, and/or disappointment. I want to surrender to whatever the moment brings. And if and when those less desirable, more challenging moments come, I want to surrender self-judgment too. Ultimately, surrender is transformational—not in the moment, but over time. The experiences and the accompanying feelings will percolate over days, weeks, months, and begin to define a new part of my self.

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“What’s your biggest takeaway?” many of my friends have asked.

My first thought is OMG, it was SO HOT!! How do people live without air conditioning?

The European heatwave made a big impression and impact, but it was only the last several days of our trip. There were many other takeaways that I will share as I travel through the itinerary in my reflections. Join me on the journey through Germany, Austria and Switzerland, the outer pilgrimage, and the inner pilgrimage as I share my biggest takeaways—

Hospitality—History—Humor—Humility—Heat —Home
(the H thing was a total coincidence, but I took it as a good sign to keep writing.) Continue reading “A Busload of Hospitality: A Benedictine Pilgrimage, Part 4”

Welcoming the Stranger: A Benedictine Pilgrimage, Part 3

“Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ”—Rule of St. Benedict 53:1

Officially the Benedictine pilgrimage part of my trip does not start until I connect with thirty-six other pilgrims, but as I reflect on the readings/homily from Sunday, July 21, 2019 (the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C), it occurs to me that the week I spent with my cousins was just as much part of the pilgrimage. It was the embodiment of being Benedictine and of the hospitality demonstrated in these readings.

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For having only met once, Jefferey and Sabine were practically welcoming a stranger in their home and yet, they received me with enthusiasm, providing food, water, bath, and bed for several days. So, too, did Jennifer and Santhosh. They planned events and excursions; they took care of transportation and many other practical details. Jennifer rearranged a room, asked if I needed shampoo, soap, lotion, a light, a different blanket, more food, a glass of water…so much hospitality that Santhosh had to drag her out of the room, laughing, “Let her sleep, she is tired.” But, mostly we were in each other’s company—listening, talking, asking questions. We were present to each other.

In Genesis 18:1-10a, Abraham welcomes three strangers, running enthusiastically to greet them; he offers the choicest food, water, rest, and a foot bath (okay, no one gave me a foot bath, but I did have wonderful hot showers!) He provides the strangers, often illustrated as the three angels of the Holy Trinity icon, the practical concerns of being hospitable, but he also “wait(ed) on them under the tree while they ate.” He meets their needs, but also gives them his attention; he is present to them.

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In Luke 10:38-42, Martha welcomes Jesus into her home, working hard on the practical elements of serving a guest, perhaps preparing the food, cleaning a room for the visitor, and setting the table. Mary, on the other hand, simply sits with Jesus and listens. She gives him her attention; she is present to him. Surely, the practical things are important (otherwise no one would ever eat), but Jesus tells them that “Mary has chosen what is better.” Both the practical actions and being present, or contemplative, are important elements of hospitality and being Benedictine. Continue reading “Welcoming the Stranger: A Benedictine Pilgrimage, Part 3”

I Don’t Know Nothin’

I don’t know nothin’.

Six years ago today, my father-in-law Marv passed away—so today, more than usual, I am thinking of him and missing our kitchen table conversations. We would talk about politics and religion, the economy and education, and the best brands of Cabernet for the cheapest prices. After sharing his wisdom, attempting to solve world problems, and philosophizing over a glass of wine, Marv would throw up his hands in disbelief and exclaim, “What do I know? I don’t know nothin’.”

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Marv and I enjoying some cheap Cabernet in Las Vegas.

He had thoughts, opinions and plenty of experience, but, self-admittedly, he felt he still didn’t know much. Marv said it often enough that it was the opening line in the eulogy my husband gave for his dad’s funeral. This phrase, “I don’t know nothin’” holds so much meaning, far beyond a simple or flippant segue into another subject, rather I believe he was saying “I have ideas, but I will stay open to other possibilities.”

I’m sure there was a time or two when he knew exactly how things should be, but they didn’t turn out the way he expected, as so often happens. Perhaps he meant—I surrender needing to know. Perhaps he meant—I don’t know it all. I don’t know the big picture. I don’t have all the answers. I thought I knew a lot, but now, I wonder if I know much at all. I am humbled by what I do not know. Continue reading “I Don’t Know Nothin’”

Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ: Hospitality and The Holy Trinity

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” he began, as we made the Sign of the Cross.

A few months after we had moved into our new home, one of my favorite monks, Fr. Thomas Leitner joined us for a special dinner and house blessing. After the introductory prayers and Scripture readings, Fr. Thomas sprinkled Holy Water that had been blessed at the Easter Vigil in each of our rooms—the living room, bedrooms, kitchen, upstairs, downstairs and even next door at Al and Beth’s house, our townhouse roofmates—and a little extra splash for our loyal Dachsy-Poo, Bailey. Our daughter, who was finishing her last year in college, would spend a few months living in our new home, but mostly it would become our empty nest. This blessing for our home was also a blessing for the next chapter in our lives.

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Fr. Thomas also gave us a special gift, a replica of Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity Icon. An icon, an image or religious picture, communicates a deeper spiritual meaning often used in prayer and meditation for Christians throughout the world. It was a special image for him, used as the holy card for his ordination and First Mass in 1992.*  He enthusiastically shared with us why he also felt it represented how we would welcome those who entered as guests and the hospitality we would extend in our new home. Continue reading “Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ: Hospitality and The Holy Trinity”

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